In Part 1 of this series, we set the stage by defining effective criticism, with a focus on enacting positive change. After exploring some effective methods for delivering criticism in Part 2, let’s look at the cultural implications related to effective criticism.

We have all seen how an organization’s culture can directly impact someone. Think about a friend or co-worker you know who effectively acts as an organizational chameleon: in one situation they are friendly, fun loving, and self-deprecating; in another, they become terse, angry, defensive, or even weepy. The difference more often than not is culture. In one situation the person felt safe, appreciated, and viewed errors as simply an opportunity to learn, while in another, the person felt unsafe, unsure of what is going on, and threatened by the possibility of making an error when trying something new.

A group’s culture can be described as the social behavior and norms found in human aggregations. This includes families and small companies as well as massive aggregations like civilizations. Some cultures are officially sanctioned and developed as part of the management process, while other cultures organically form on their own or despite management efforts. Some cultures are inclusive, some work to exclude others, some are friendly, or curious, or downright snarky.

“For criticism to achieve its maximum benefit within an organization, various cultural factors must be in place.”

Cultural Factor #1: Transparency

The mark of a transparent organization is its ability to learn, change and prosper. The word transparency itself is a favorite among managers and consultants, but it carries many different definitions. Perhaps the best way to land on a solid definition is to know what transparency includes and excludes.

 A Transparent Culture Includes: 

  • Explanations of thought processes and decisions
  • Shared work processes
  • Physical and intellectual availability at all levels
  • Honesty
  • Positivity
  • Trust
  • Social interaction

A Transparent Culture Excludes:

  • Office politics
  • Secret meetings
  • Recrimination or retaliation
  • Surprise decisions
  • Sequestered management
  • Deceit

Cultural Factor #2: Learning and Diversity

These elements are two sides of the same coin. The understanding that criticism is to help the recipient enact positive change also implies an interest in personal and organizational learning. The culture of an organization then should also encourage self-discovery and curiosity within its workforce.  Acceptance of new points of view and a full range of diversity should also be hallmarks of an organization’s culture.

Cultural Factor #3: Safety

When we think of organizational safety, we often think of hard hats and safety glasses. However, safety takes on a whole new definition when we consider this cultural element within the context of effective criticism. An organization’s culture should ensure that it is safe for those within the organization to display that they know what they don’t know. When members of an organization are safe, it allows for a more thorough discussion and enables criticism to achieve its ultimate goal: enact positive change.

In safe environments, the person receiving criticism may feel comfortable asking for concrete examples or better yet emotional responses: how did the action/communication make the person who is giving the criticism feel. This would be an indicator of how the organization, and those within it, have made the switch from being in proving mode (defensiveness and denial) to improving mode (results based, I/we want to perform better).

When giving criticism, leaders must not only be aware of the existing culture with their organizations, but also intentional about improving the culture. Rule of thumb for leaders: Ensure what is being said is aligned with the culture you want.

In the next installment in this series, we’ll extend the conversation beyond the cultural factors of criticism and explore how to best receive criticism and use it to enact positive individual and organizational change.

If you’d like to learn more check out Part 1: The Problem Is… and Part 2: How To Say It.